Unique among the 4.1 million
YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK — We wind our way through the Lamar Valley sage, fly rods in hand, doing our best to avoid the American bison baking in the unseasonably hot mountain air.
Three sets of wading boots trod through countless bison dust wallows as we hike upstream in search of Lamar River water untouched by other fly-fishers. Two mule deer dart out of a patch of brush we avoid because of its grizzly-ish features, then a coyote ambles past. More bison grunt disapprovingly at our presence.
"I'm starting to get this feeling that we're in the Serengeti," says Matt Reilly, of Virginia.
One cast later, a cutthroat trout proves it's not the Serengeti.
No fly-fishing venture to the High Plains is complete without a quest to catch native Yellowstone cutthroat trout amid America's most spectacular backcountry and the very tangible wildness that comes with it.
For a century fly-casters have sung the praises of this country's signature national park and the opportunities to stalk the exquisite cutthroat that share its name, yet Yellowstone and its cuts are just as wild and eye-popping today for any first-timer able to sample its splendor.
Make that three first-timers.
Reilly is a budding outdoors writer from Virginia fishing with me and Mark Taylor, a Myrtle Creek native and former Virginia newspaper outdoors writer now working for Trout Unlimited.
We earlier converged in nearby Billings, Mont., for the annual Outdoor Writers Association of America conference, then popped over to Yellowstone to investigate efforts by TU, the National Park Service and others to rid non-native and cutthroat-eating lake trout from Yellowstone Lake.
That day was spent largely like most of the other 4.1 million visitors expected in Yellowstone this season experience the park — in long lines, traffic jams, swatting mosquitoes big enough to be filleted, and more traffic.
That left one day for adventure.
Armed with advice from fellow OWAA members, we set out toward the upper Lamar River and its population of native cutthroat isolated from Yellowstone Lake by a waterfall, hoping to isolate ourselves from other fly-fishers clogging all park waters near roads.
We set out through the sage, zig-zagging past bison after bison, around pockets of trees and brush that look like havens for slumbering and suddenly disagreeable grizzlies. We stroll past stunning pronghorn and through dozens of bison wallows while passing within grunting distance of several of these animals.
I'm reminded that I write stories about people who do stupid stuff like this.
"It makes everything more interesting when the things you run into can kill you," Reilly says.
Bison are everywhere, and quite welcome because they keep other fly-fishers away. We'd rather stroll within 30 yards of these in-the-rut behemoths than within 3,000 yards of anyone with a salmon- or teal-colored casting shirt.
We pop over a ridge and startle a half-dozen sandhill cranes. They, too, squawk at our presence, and Taylor squawks back. Having discovered his inner Doolittle, Taylor chats it up with the birds until he apparently says something offensive in crane and the birds flee.
Finally the Lamar runs clean and cold over our wading boots as we march upstream in search of rocky pockets likely to hold cutthroat. Taylor's first cast of a dry hopper pattern fools a nine-inch native, one of several to come to hand for release in the ensuing hours.
Nearly every cast draws at least passing interest from cutthroats, some of which get caught close to a dozen times in a summer. Most drifts bring refusals. Even a hardened Rogue steelheader manages to scare up a few of the majestic cuts and their acrylic coloring.
Eventually we fish our way into contact with the teal and salmon casting shirts, and the day is over.
Stories about the larger-than-life thing called Yellowstone are everywhere and echoed seemingly by everyone, with the common thread being how spectacular a place and a fishing experience not found in the backwoods of Oregon or even the wilds of Alaska.
We've fished Oregon together. We even plied the wilds of Alaska together.
Those are fishing trips. Yellowstone is a journey, a quest that is as uniquely singular an experience you can get in this place that will have more visitors this season than there are residents of Oregon.
"I've heard so much about Yellowstone, but now that I've been here, I get it," Taylor says. "Half a day, and I get it."